Victory with Honour

By Benjamin Massey

August 21st, 2016 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

I’ve waited a few days to write this. Why was I not sprinting for my laptop, getting the words out of my burning fingers, screaming with joy at the Canadian women’s national team defending its bronze medal? Especially when it was not a London-style demifluke but a comprehensive dismantling of the well-matched-on-paper Brazil in Brazil, when Brazil’s best eleven recently beat Canada’s best eleven fairly easily in a Toronto friendly.

Because it didn’t really matter.

By the time the Germans beat us we’d proven what we needed to prove. Our young players had taken that decisive step in a major tournament, with Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming, and Janine Beckie fighting over team MVP honours. A gold medal would have meant everything, obviously, but another bronze is, from the perspective of the long-time fan, a cherry on top of a sundae that would have been perfectly delicious without one. (I do not say the players felt, or should have felt, this way; both London veterans and first-timers were quite rightly starving for the podium. But for a fan, things are different.)

Well, we got our cherry. It was good. It was totally deserved; in his excitement John Herdman put Canada into bunker mode prematurely, Brazil got a goal back on a defensive miscue, and we had a few minutes of uncertainty that did not reflect the 75 minutes Canada spent running Brazil’s show, or the obviously-superior Canadian cohesion and conditioning that would have made us favourites in extra time anyway*. Josée Bélanger, Sophie Schmidt, and Deanne Rose killed the game to death and in hindsight we were stupid to worry. The women did their leap off the podium, posed with their bronze medals, and even those who already had one seemed perfectly pleased to get another. I can think of one better way for soccer to start a Friday… but only one.

It wasn’t the same on the other side. The Brazilians needed victory so badly, to the point where a desperate, heart-broken Marta went on Brazilian television and almost desperately begged her countrymen to keep the faith. The Brazilian women have always been the poor relations for their soccer federation, usually playing in men’s-cut kits without enough training camps and limited exposure to first-class competitive environments. This isn’t the first time Marta and her comrades have briefly taken off in Brazil, but in the past momentum petered out and it was back to the same old institutional inadequacy. Medalling at home could have made all the difference and the players knew it. Instead, a Brazilian media outlet reported that the team’s funding is now in doubt[1] [Portuguese]. This is one time when the old Canadian cliché of “who wanted it more” definitely doesn’t apply.

But we’re happy. Five wins, no draws, one loss in the Olympics. Beat France and Germany, beat the hosts, beat Australia. A significantly better performance against the French than we got in London, with the same happy result. A full team effort, not “Christine Sinclair and Erin McLeod punch in cheat codes and turn superhuman.” That was the best major tournament Canadian soccer has ever had, and you can’t ask for more than that.

No, I lie. You can. You have to.

Christine Sinclair said it in a Facebook video with Karina LeBlanc[2]. LeBlanc asked “what’s going to keep you going?” and after only a moment’s thought Sinclair replied “I’m kinda sick of the bronze medal.” And if she’s sick of it, so am I.

At the end of the 2015 Women’s World Cup it looked like our window had closed. As tournament hosts we had home-field advantage and a favourable draw, the best opportunity to actually win a major international trophy we’d ever get, while our stars were on the tail-end of their primes. Despite playing well we went out in the quarterfinal. There was nothing for the team to be ashamed of, that loss to England was harsh, but it didn’t matter. Yet both fans and officials kept the faith. For all the disappointment and debate over selections there was never any suggestion that John Herdman’s job was under pressure. So Herdman could take the risk of integrating youngsters when running his veterans into the ground would have been safer. Beckie got into the first team, Lawrence was transformed into a fullback, Fleming became an automatic starter, Rose and Shelina Zadorsky went from obscurity to surefire Olympians in about ten months.

When you run five experiments like that you’re lucky if two pan out. Either John Herdman is even more brilliant than we thought or he took all the bad luck from 2015 and cashed it in for 2016, because so far he’s five-for-five. Lawrence turned out to be one of the best fullbacks in women’s soccer and is my vote for Canadian player of the year, Fleming was at her best in the most important matches and is making the leap before our eyes, Beckie not only scores but generates chances and gets in beautiful positions, Zadorsky has been perfectly respectable, and while you have to call Rose a prospect she had a serious early impact. There are more young players who haven’t yet broken in but have every chance in the next two years: Victoria Pickett, the Sarahs Kinzner and Stratigakis, and Gabby Carle being the most prominent, with Sura Yekka still lurking. Suddenly, and who saw this coming, Canada’s selection for the 2019-20 World Cup/Olympic cycle looks stronger than that for 2015-16.

So if Sinclair is sick of bronze medals there’s a small but real chance that Canada will be well-positioned to get her an upgrade. A World Cup or a gold medal for Canadian soccer would, under any circumstances, be an unprecedented national achievement, but in 2019 and 2020 there’ll be more on the line than mere triumph, glory, immortality, and eternal celebration. There’ll be Christine Sinclair’s place in the history of the sport.

Whenever she scores we talk about #ChasingAbby, and becoming the all-time leading international goal-scorer would be incredible, but nobody has ever doubted that Christine Sinclair can put the ball in the net. The only question, mostly from outsiders who don’t watch her day after day, is her record with her team. “Sure, Canada spent hundreds of games lumping the ball up to Sincy and letting her knock it in, but what’s it gotten them? It’s one thing to be the alpha dog on a team that’s never in the running, it’s another to lead a team to victory like Abby Wambach.” The highest honours in her international career are these two bronze medals and silver in the 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championship. It’s not fair, but you see it in every sport: when ranking the all-time greats, winning counts.

It’s because Sinclair has bled and fought and broken bones for a team that was not always worthy of her invincible talents that we, and now I do mean both fans and players, have such an obligation to get her one big prize. She is the best player in women’s soccer history. She represented soccer in this country during some of its darkest, most obscure days. She began her career swinging from 55,000-strong crowds at Commonwealth Stadium for the U-19s to 550 people watching senior friendlies at the University of Victoria, because the country had not yet learned to embrace this team unconditionally. Only Sinclair could teach us. Not because she’s some huge media presence (she is, deliberately, a notoriously indifferent interview), not because she was pushed on us as some human interest story, but because she kept performing, in thankless obscurity, for years and years and years and years, scoring, scoring, scoring, fighting, adding one page after another to her developing legend, until even the most casual sports fans couldn’t tear their eyes away. The quintessential episode will always be the 2011 World Cup, where Sinclair scored a scorching free kick goal against the host Germans, broke her nose, came out in a ghastly face mask, and fought like a goddamned Greek goddess before the astonished eyes of the world even as her team, badly chosen and badly coached, comprehensively decomposed around her. The Canadian women’s national team emerged from that tournament with not even the slightest trace of credit, except for Sinclair, who earned the Order of Canada. Never, not even the 2012 Olympic semifinal, could you so literally say of an athlete that “she was worth the price of admission on her own.”

For most veteran players, no matter what their contributions and how great their personalities, there comes a point when they must be gently eased out of the picture. That point should never come for Christine Sinclair. Not because she is immune to the ravages of age, but because she is an exception to the usual hyper-competitive rules.

Daniel Squizzato wrote that “Sinclair deserves to lead this team for as long as her body will allow her.[3] Right now that’s easy to say, because Sinclair just scored three goals at the Olympics with two from open play, including the bronze-medal winner. Though not the focal point of Canada’s attack anymore, no longer the best forward alive, there’s no doubt among the sensible that Sinclair is still worth a starting spot. In strictly on-field terms we could live without her (actually a good thing) but I wouldn’t want to. However, over the next cycle, as she goes from mid- to late-thirties, time will exact its inevitable toll. The injuries are slowly accumulating already. Christine Sinclair can beat a lot of opponents single-handed but not that one. Nobody believes that Sinclair would stick around long after she’d lost her last trace of quality like some Americans of the past, but, especially when there’s one last tournament ahead, athletes tend to go too late rather than too early.

So be it. It’s possible that Sinclair will be capable of playing a useful role at age 37, but if she isn’t, bring her anyway. Cheer her on and support her without condition, do everything in your power as a fan or as a player to ensure that she can get that precious championship. The kids will get their chance regardless, we can afford to show the loyalty due to the ultimate legend. Spare nothing to get her that title, whether it’s playing 90 minutes for the senior WNT or buying tickets to local women’s soccer teams that get our players games. Sinclair carried us single-handed for so long, if we have to carry her for a moment, let us smile while we do it. Because if Christine Sinclair can stand proud and finally hear the Canadian anthem at the end of a game as well as the beginning, we’ll know that even this cruel world can be just.


* — Brazil had already taken out their second-best forward, Cristiane, while Marta was sucking wind for most of the last half-hour. Meanwhile, Canada’s co-leading scorer, Janine Beckie, had just come off the bench and if we were interested in scoring more than killing time was in position for a couple first-rate scoring chances. The fourth sub in extra time would have evened things up a little, but only a little.

[1] — Seda, Vincente. “Cúpula da CBF discute extinção de seleção permanente de futebol feminino.” Globoesporte.com, August 21, 2016. Accessed August 21, 2016. http://globoesporte.globo.com/blogs/especial-blog/bastidores-fc/post/cupula-da-cbf-discute-extincao-de-selecao-permanente-de-futebol-feminino.html [Portuguese].

[2] — LeBlanc, Karina. “Check out my Facebook live chat with the Canada Soccer girls at Team Canada / Équipe Canada house in Rio last night…” Via Facebook, August 21, 2016. Accessed August 21, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/KarinaLeBlanc.KK/posts/1198731803511813.

[3] — Squizzato, Daniel. “Canada WNT striker Christine Sinclair showing she still has plenty to offer.” [oh that Christine Sinclair – ed.] MLSSoccer.com, August 20, 2016. Accessed August 21, 2016. http://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2016/08/20/canada-wnt-striker-christine-sinclair-showing-she-still-has-plenty-offer.

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